story-telling series: hardly strangers, part 1

PART ONE – AMY. “I’m outta here, Amy,” my co-worker chirped at me from behind the cake displays. “It’s nine-thirty. The weekend officially started half an hour ago. I’m already late,” she said, theatrically dancing around the cash register.

“Late for what?” I asked absent-mindedly. I was concentrating on mopping up the floors without disturbing Mr. Florence, who had quietly dozed off in his favorite chair, tucked behind the magazine stands by the back window. He still had his coffee cup sitting half-empty on the table.

“Late for the weekend. And so are you, not that you would notice. You’re addicted to work. Or maybe you’re addicted to self-punishment. I haven’t figured it out yet,” she smirked at me as she snuck a lemon bar in her purse. I wasn’t listening, and she noticed.

“Amy, just wake him up already,” she said.

“I’m not in a rush. I’d rather not wake him,” I said.

“What’s the big deal? He’ll just get up and fall back asleep on the bus or wherever he ends up sitting down next. He’s old, I’m sure naps come real easy for him,” she said, still smirking.

“He’s not usually here this late. I’m not even sure how he’s getting home, I never see him taking the bus,” I said.

“Well, what if he never wakes up?”

“Lorraine! That’s terrible,” I shoved her out of the way as I dragged my mop to the back room.

“I’m just saying. You can’t wait around here forever. He might be 85 and senile, but you’re 23. You have a life. Or at least you should get one,” she said. I responded by turning the faucet water on full blast. She sighed. “Well, I’m getting out of here. Maybe you should ask Mr. Florence to go for drinks. If he ever wakes up.”

She was out the door before I got a chance to come up with a smart come-back. Oh well. I don’t really care what Lorraine thinks. Mr. Florence is here every single day and he’s such a nice man. He hardly ever says anything to me or to anyone, but in an old coffee shop in the middle of the city, you could do a lot worse than a quiet old man. He comes in everyday at the same time, orders the same cup of coffee and sits quietly in the same chair for hours. People around here avoid him because they think he must be cranky, but every time I’ve ever smiled at him, he always smiled back. And he always left a tip.

“Oh!” I heard him wake with a start. He had jerked upright in his seat, and his hand knocked his coffee cup over the table. He caught the cup before it dropped and broke into pieces, but the cold coffee had sprayed all over the floor that I just mopped two minutes ago. Just my luck.

“Don’t worry about that, Mr. Florence, I got it,” I said, biting the side of my cheek in an attempt to hide my slight irritation. Maybe I should have kicked him out when Lorraine told me to.

“I’m terribly sorry, miss. I didn’t even realize that I had fallen asleep. My son usually comes to pick me up, but he’s not here right now. I guess I must have dozed off,” he said, sounding a little disoriented. “Could you tell me what time it is?”

“It’s 9:30 — no actually, it’s 9:40,” I said.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m terribly sorry! I really had no idea it was so late…my son…he usually comes…I’m not sure…” he trailed off, frantically reading the air with his eyes, searching for answers.

There was something in his face that made my heart break a little bit. Maybe he had forgotten where he was, or where he lives. I racked my brains trying to remember if I’ve ever seen his son come in to get him, but I couldn’t remember seeing him once. I could only remember Mr. Florence coming in, getting his coffee, and then getting up to leave, everyday for the past 2 years I’ve been working here.

I started to worry. What if he didn’t have a son, and he was just having a mental breakdown? Am I witnessing someone’s descent into dementia? Have I now become responsible for this old man? I wasn’t sure what to do, but I felt really concerned for him, and oddly accountable for him; after all, I was the last person he saw before he lost it. I had to at least try to take him home or to a hospital.

“I’ll drive you, Mr. Florence,” I said. “You can just give me directions and I’ll get you home safely.”

“I can’t let you do that,” he said. He was clearly embarrassed. I could tell he didn’t want to impose, but I had already made up my mind.

“It’s really not a big deal, Mr. Florence. I don’t mind,” I said.

He paused, looking very troubled. “I don’t even know your name,” he said.

“My name is Amy Richards. I make your coffee every afternoon, Mr. Florence. You can hardly call me a stranger,” I smiled.

He paused again, looking less troubled and more thoughtful. Finally, he reached out his hand and said, “I’m Paul.”

“Pleased to meet you, Paul Florence,” I said, as I took his hand to shake it.

“The pleasure is mine, Miss Richards,” he said. Finally, he smiled. It was a small, sort of embarrassed smile, but I was relieved to know that he was as nervous as I was.

While I mopped up the coffee, turned off the lights and locked up the coffee house, I let Mr. Florence use the phone to call his son. Nobody picked up, so he resigned himself to giving me directions to his house. Luckily, I’m familiar with his area and I don’t live too far out of the way. Still, I did a quick inventory of nearby hospitals just in case the address he gave me turned out to be an empty lot or a storage unit.

The street was bustling with people, out for the weekend, having a good time. We must have looked odd walking down the street together, a young woman with a coffee house apron dangling from her backpack, and an old man looking worried and helpless. I wonder if it looked like I was kidnapping him. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I started to worry.

Looking back at that night, I know now that I was right to worry, but not about looking like a kidnapper. I had no idea then, or as I was getting into my car, or as I stepped on the gas when the light turned green on 12th and Willow. But as sure as I was alive, a blue coupe was racing down the intersection trying to beat the red light, and then crashing into the passenger side of my car.

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